ATLANTA—Citing her outstanding contribution to the field of literature written by African Americans, many of the nation's top cultural luminaries gathered at Morehouse College Monday to present author and poet Maya Angelou with the first-ever Maya Angelou Lifetime Courage And Blackness Achievement Award.
Reading like a veritable who's-who of the nation's political, literary, academic and daytime-television elite, the event's star-studded guest list included such notables as Susan Sarandon, Henry Louis Gates, Fiona Apple, Oprah Winfrey and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who described Angelou in her keynote address as "courageous and black."
"Maya Angelou is not merely a courageous literary figure, she is also an extremely black person, with an overall skin tone far darker in hue than that of a person of European descent," Clinton said. She went on to note that Angelou, author of such mediocre works as I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, And
Still I Rise, and On The Pulse Of The Morning, President Clinton's 1992 inaugural poem, has been "black since birth."
Also paying tribute to Dr. Angelou at the ceremony was Yale University professor of English Isabel Leuchter, who spoke eloquently on the subject of Angelou's poetry and her deep-brown face and arms.
"Many women have distinguished themselves in American letters: Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, to name a mere handful," she said. "However, when compared to Angelou, even these greats stand clearly lighter in skin tone. She is far blacker than any of these predecessors—and that takes a lot of courage."
Visibly black, Angelou thanked the assembled crowd, modestly pointing out that, while she was honored by the recognition, she prefers "not just to be thought of as a 'black writer,' but as a 'woman writer' as well."
"Being black in today's America has caused me great adversity, adversity which I have needed great courage to overcome," Angelou said. "But much of the adversity I have faced has come from my status as a woman. Being a woman in today's America also requires enormous courage."
Calling Angelou's writing "the poetry of a very black woman," Clinton also commended her for her supporting role opposite Oprah Winfrey in the inspirational 1993 made-for-TV movie There Are No Children Here, in which she portrayed an inspirational black woman.
"That film dealt with gang violence, a topic that has deeply touched this nation's African-American community," said Clinton, who was accompanied by a sign-language interpreter. "By taking on this and other touching black roles, Maya Angelou has touched us all."
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, who presented Angelou with the award on behalf of the Maya Angelou Lifetime Courage And Blackness Achievement Awards committee, called her "a blacker woman than I will ever be." Smiley said she hopes to see the Maya Angelou Lifetime Courage And Blackness Achievement Award become an annual event, and to continue to present the award to Angelou every year until her death.
The hour-long event included retrospective readings from throughout Angelou's career, as well as a full-color slideshow offering spectrographic analysis of Angelou's skin, clearly demonstrating that it is darker than that of whites. The presentation also featured a musical salute to Angelou from the vocal group Sounds Of Blackness, a performance many guests described as "moving and black."
Alternative-rock singer Fiona Apple—who, like millions of other semi-educated, emotionally unstable young white women, cites Angelou as a "major influence"—also paid tribute to the poet, dedicating to Angelou a spoken-word recitation of her song "Criminal," throughout which she contorted and leered sexually at the audience.
In her closing remarks, Clinton said that Angelou's courage is something "all of us can share."
"It takes a lot of courage to admire a black woman in today's racially polarized world," Clinton said. "Choosing to be here today was a brave decision on my part, and by being here with me, each and every one of you has also shown tremendous bravery. Give yourselves a hand."
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Smiley agreed. "It took a lot of courage for me to stand there and give an award to an African American, knowing full well what kind of society we live in," she said. "I am a source of great pride."
Yet amid all the pomp and glamour, Angelou herself remained modest. Courageously addressing the press, Angelou said, "There are many others equally deserving of such praise," and called for more recognition of fellow writers Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Rita Dove and Alice Walker, writers she described as "uncompromisingly courageous" and "also black."
The award was Angelou's first since last Friday, when she received the Angela Davis Leadership Award For Contributions To The Field Of Lesbian Identity from Smith College.